Consumer Misery in Steve Cutts’ “Happiness”

The terrible truth that Steve Cutts reveals in his short animated film “Happiness” is that consumerism entices but does not lead to happiness. His rats are surrounded by consumer messages that promise that they—even the main rat character—will be happy if he merely buys the product, but each time the rat believes in the message he is betrayed and becomes even more unhappy than ever.

The thousands of rats in Cutts’ film are surrounded by advertisements. The hordes of rats in office clothes that make up the citizens in their crowded city, are hemmed in on every side by an advertising that promises each of their products will deliver delight. Each of the rats, most importantly the main rat we follow in the film, are convinced enough by these messages that they avidly pursue each promise. Perhaps because he is trapped in a maze of billboards and ads, our leading rat follows others and buys a pile of products only to throw them away when more products are in front of him. He pushes in with his fellow rats on black Friday and then fights with his fellow shoppers until some have lost their limbs and blood covers the walls. The ads’ promise of happiness is so convincing that even this experience does not change his mind and soon he is driving a convertible until he stalls in traffic with thousands of others, his brief joy turning to morose misery as his car is vandalized and it begins to rain. The promise of happiness in the form of an alcohol ad on a billboard leads him to his next pursuit and soon he is drunken and seeking a flyer’s promise of happiness in the form of prescription medication. Once this promise is broken, he is destitute but still pursuing the consumer promise of a hundred dollar bill which takes him to a factory workplace where he is trapped by his wish for money enough to endure the misery of his job.

As the litany of the rats’ attempt to pursue happiness implies, each time he tries to fulfill the promise offered, he is betrayed by the ultimate emptiness of the promise. He believes consumerism will lead him to enjoyment, but he merely ends biting his fellow rats over a big screen television. He believes that the car will offer him the freedom and success of the car ads, but the traffic of the city defeats that possibility and the liquor he embraces as the film nears its end merely symbolizes his desperation. The cycle of consumerism and misery the rat is confined by is symbolized by the images of entrapment, such as the maze of ads, the claustrophobia of the commuter train, the anger of the confining angry crowds on black Friday, but the rats’ misery becomes more apparent when he resorts to alcohol and ultimately drugs. The prescription medications, we learn in the film, do not remove the cause of his misery, but rather mask it with yet another portrayal of happiness: the Disney castle of fantasy. This fantasy does not endure, and before long the rat falls into the street with other destitute rats. There a chance hundred dollar bill, with its similar promise of ultimate happiness, leads him to the terrible image of an office job. The rat trap clamps down on his neck as he reaches for money and his unending misery—which has been implied by his pursuit of consumer goods—is assured as he types with a million others.

Although Cutts’ rat seems to be happy enough as the film starts—in that he is free to pursue what he wishes—his chase after the consumer goods from the ads which promise happiness merely ensures that he will be trapped chasing after money and the trash that money can buy. Ultimately, he is as trapped as all the other rats in a cycle of buying, throwing away, and suffering for money. Although Cutts does not offer an alternative to the promised lifestyle of our society, his unflinching portrayal does little to make rampant consumerism look inviting. Instead he offers the argument that consumerism is a trap into which we willingly walk and will lead us to misery.

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Losing the Brakes

I was in rush hour traffic outside Lévis, Quebec recently when the driver in front of me slammed on his or her brakes. I knew I had a weak brake line but I found out exactly how corroded it was when I pressed my brake pedal, the car slowed, and then the pedal dropped to the floor and I knew my brakes were gone.

I was saved by a few things. I never tailgate, and I always drive slower than the drivers around me. My lack of trust for the behaviour of those in front of me was more than helpful this time, and I was able to cut the wheel to the right and steer onto the breakdown lane long before I would have impacted the car in front of me.

Once I was in the breakdown lane and driving slowly in third gear with my hazard lights on, I’m sure more than a few of those caught in traffic beside me watched me pass with envy. They no doubt thought I was cheating the system, and using the breakdown lane to my advantage. I was ready for a cop to question me though, for I would merely point out that I had no brakes at all apart from the emergency brake.

Once I was leaving on the first off-ramp, I watched the light at the end of the lane warily. When it suddenly changed colour, I pulled up the emergency brake and the rear tires squealed me to a stop. The woman behind me honked and then gestured that I had accidentally left my emergency lights flashing and I waved to acknowledge that I was aware. Directly across from the intersection was a parking lot for a local pub, so I pulled into an empty part of the parking lot and pulled up the hood. At first the telltale oily mixture that is brake fluid was invisible to me in the undercoated engine compartment, but I knew only one brake line could be responsible. All of the other metal lines had been replaced; it could have been a flex hose to the individual wheels that went, but they rupture more rarely than the main lines, at least in my experience.

Once I found it was the brake line I suspected, I cut it in two with my wire cutters—I carry a full toolkit in the car as well as brake fluid—and then disconnected it from the juncture which is fed by the main brake cylinder. Then I used my pipe wrench in lieu of a hammer and bent the line back on itself and hammered it shut. After binding it with electrical tape, just in case the thousands of pounds per square inch pressure on the line caused it to expand, I reinstalled the short bend line on the juncture. That means the system as a whole is sealed again, and that I have enough braking power to at least search Lévis for a brake line.

Tentatively, I pulled out of the parking lot and went toward a major stretch of busy road indicated a more industrial section of the town. In the heavy traffic I was happy to have even three brakes, and when I pushed the brake and pulled naturally enough to the right—given that only one front brake was working—I was able to compensate by turning the wheel. I found a NAPA store but once I pulled in and exercised my poor French, I found they didn’t have a line in stock. They would be able to get it to me by the morning, they explained, but I merely asked about a Canadian tire store. Their forty dollar and a day late brake line wasn’t that inviting anyway. I followed their directions, but soon realized I had lost something in the translation.

At a gas station I had better luck, and my French was slightly more honed, to the topic at least, and before long I was in the parking lot of the Canadian Tire store. I tried French, which deteriorates very quickly to Spanish in my case, that being my stronger language, but the man in automotive parts merely asked, “Do you speak English?” Sheepishly, I continued in English, bought a thirty inch line that compared in terms of thread with the line I had brought into the store with me. This is done by pushing the threads together and looking for gaps when you hold them up to the light. Short of threading them into a hole, this is a way to ascertain that you are buying the right part. I supplemented that with a litre of brake fluid, and soon I was jacking up the front tire and removing it.

I had parked away from the main lot when I’d come in, for this very reason, for it is not strictly acceptable to work on your car in the parking lot, although it is common. I’d also parked under a tree in order to take advantage of the shade on a hot day. Once I had the tire off, and I’d cleaned and then removed the brake line from the coupling to the flex hose behind the tire, ensured the bleed valve was not rusted shut by loosening it, I bent the new line to thread it into the coupling. I wanted to loosen the part in the juncture as late as possible in the procedure so I wouldn’t bleed out too much fluid.

Threading a line is an art as well as a science. The line has to be bent so it does not make the bolt cross-thread, and that often means trying it over and over and bending it slightly while doing so. When it was installed, I bent it into the configuration it will need to go in to work around the master cylinder, and installed it as well. Then I refilled the flagging master cylinder with the brake fluid I still had—it turned out I had enough for the job after all—and then loosened the bleed valve.

The main problem with bleeding brakes is sucking air back into the bleed valve even as you get rid of air in the line. One way to do this is to keep replenishing the master cylinder and let the fluid gravity-feed through all the lines on its way to the bleed valves. I didn’t have time or inclination, so I pulled a hose from my windshield washer pump—which is conveniently located under the hood—hooked that up to the bleed valve and placed the other end in a cut off plastic water bottle. Then I pumped the brakes slowly, the fluid filled the translucent hose and its end sealed against reintroducing air by flooding the bottom of the bottle. Once there was two centimetres of fluid in the bottle, I tightened the bleed valve, put the hose back in the windshield washer system, put the tire back on, and sent a message to my friend in Montreal that I would be two hours late.

The entire fix took around two hours from the time my brakes went on the highway to being on the highway again. Most of that time was faffing about, although when I fixed the brakes I worked slowly and deliberately so that I would not make a mistake or break something else I would have to fix. Fixing a car beside the road often means you are rushed, and that is a bad headspace for a system as essential as brakes. The job took about a half hour, and I was back on the highway before I thought about how that experience would be entirely different depending on who was in my position. Many people would have had to wait until a garage could fix their car, and wait on getting parts from a dealer. While they were waiting, the mechanics would sense their desperation and find other parts that “must” be replaced immediately.

With some tools in the car, some knowledge of basic auto systems, and the willingness to try to fix it, a days-long ordeal can merely be a bump in an otherwise smooth road.

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The Passing of the Years

My nephew was just visiting me and one of his passions of investigating old ruins of houses. We spent the last ten days doing just that, and he has flown out today armed with a few hundred year old coins and some old bottles. When we were trying to find some of the old farms in what is now forest, I was struck by how little remains. One village we were searching for has been gone a hundred years, and we found little beyond a broken tine off a dump rake and the shattered remains of a cast iron kettle. Another farmhouse, where we spent a few hours yesterday, was a sunken basement with large trees growing out of it, although when I was a child I had crept into the house even as it was falling down and abandoned.

This reminder of my mortality comes increasingly often as I get older. When I visit places I had been as a child, or even a young adult when I was able to travel more, they had changed considerably. The roads had been shifted to a more convenient rockcut, and houses had been covered in plastic or disappeared entirely. This is more profound with the old farmhouses. I have traced my fading memory with my nephew, trying to find what had been standing houses, although ruinous, when I was young, only to discover that distances had been elongated, or shortened, that the short distance up the hill was now nearly on the brink of the slope, and that the faded notion of the well had been replaced by weeds and brambles along the slope.

On this latest trip I returned often to my memory of the view from the broken windows of the last house we found. I had gone a number of times when I was a child, watching helplessly as the wiring was looted from the walls and people broke out windows to more easily shoot passing animals. The house was located on the opposite hill from the main dirt road, and was accessed by following a precipitous driveway and crossing a small stream where an unsteady bridge afforded the determined adventurer passage, and then walking up the hill past the apple trees on the slope until I stood in the breezes of the hillside below the house beside the lilac at the front gate, and looked back over the pretty valley I had just traversed. It was as beautiful a view as one could hope to see, and more than once I sat on the edge of the rotting well cover and looked over what the farmer and his family must have seen when the land was a working farm.

Finding the house this last time was more difficult. The fields have grown up enough that even the slope of the land is hard to recognize. In the distance shrill machinery strove to destroy the remenants of forest, and close at hand we wandered through meadow grass long since gone to golden rod and broom. We were circling one likely site, the thick raspberries and blackberries which usually indicate a barn, when I happened upon a patch of rhubarb. One of the first plants to grow in the spring, rhubarb was treasured for it tart taste and early season vitamin C, and nearly every old farm had a cluster of the thick leaves growing along a fence or near the house. I wasn’t sure I remembered where I had seen rhubarb on the land before, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t too close to the house. I cut some of the rhubarb, which was just as healthy looking as though it had been carefully tended instead of abandoned to its own fate after the homeowners had left the farm, and wrapped it in its own leaves for transport.

With our valuable booty, we finally stumbled over the basement, further down the slope from what I remembered, and closer to the tiny bridge. The old road became more apparent too, once we were standing on it and could see straight lines amongst the fractal greenery. My nephew dug into the dirt of the basement while I tried to compare my memory to the piled rock and huge trees in front of me. He located enough broken pottery to convince him of the building’s age, and before long we packed up and returned to the car with a few old square-head nails and a sizable bundle of rhubarb.

It’s tempting to see the rhubarb as a symbol of continuity, as an affirmation that life leaves its traces even as we grow older and the world shifts around us. The happy accident of the lingering plant, and the grown wild apple trees like witches brooms reaching above the alders and balsam fir below them, tell me more of a story about the fecund callousness of the natural world. Whether a buttercup seeds in a log or a human skull is a matter of indifference to the flower, and likewise the traces we leave behind us, the stones in the graves we visited, their writing fading as the marble weathers, disappear before the busy hand of time, the memories shifting with the bulging roots until they are as upended as the cemetery stones, a blank testament that someone was here.

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There, Their and They’re – What Word Choice Says about the Chooser

Many grammatical or diction errors are easily forgiven, especially in English as it is spoken in North America. Because the countries of North America, such as Canada and United States—and less so Mexico—are largely immigrant cultures, there is a lot of tolerance for syntax errors, diction problems, and accent when speaking English.

Most speakers, and more importantly those trying to listen can ignore or work around utterances that in other languages would be incomprehensible. For instance, in the tonal languages words take on an entirely different meaning while the equivalent in English, the use of stress, can operate very differently and the word is still understood. In Thai, the word maa can mean mother, the verb to come, dog, and horse, depending on its tone. In English the word emptiness means the same whether it is said EMtiness, emTIness, or emtiNESS. It may be more difficult to parse for the listener, but they will be able to detect the outlines of the word spoken.

I was in an Algarve bus station in Portugal once trying to buy a ticket. I wanted to go to Olhão, which you can guess by the tilde is pronounced with a nasal sound. I tried a dozen different combinations before I resigned myself to writing it on a piece of paper. Once the ticket agent took the paper he made a point of pronouncing the name correctly, which was very little different from what I had said. The circumstance as particularly annoying because the other possible destinations—Albufeira, Portimão, Lagos, Tavira—did not sound even remotely the same. Part of the problem can perhaps be blamed on an irritable ticket agent, but at least part of it lies with a language which does not tolerate mispronunciation.

Other errors in English, such as commas, all over, the place, can be easily ignored, while the easy confusion between a semi-colon and colon is not universally understood in the language anyway so most people would not even notice problems in their use. The type of errors that stand out for English speakers are those associated with homophones. For some reason, the writer who confuses your with you’re and their with they’re make their readers suddenly and vociferously derisive. Although not every one of those gloating trolls online who find the mix-up between its and it’s would know the reason the word and contraction are an exception to the rule, they certainly can tell when it is used improperly.

The ease of detection has more to do with this derision than the issue with the error itself. The words are pronounced the same, therefore the problem is not one of misunderstanding. Instead, it is because the error is so easy for a native speaker to notice, they immediately are flooded with two very different feelings. Because they have so easily detected the simple error they instantly feel a satisfaction which can only come to people who are rarely given chances to flaunt their knowledge, which gives you a sense of their commitment to the subtleties of language, and they immediately feel an undeserved feeling of their own superiority. As we found from the Dunning-Kruger effect, the barely competent person has a greatly enhanced opinion of their competence. That they noticed such an obvious error is for them—online at least—proof of their skills with the language.

This means that if English is your second, third or even tenth language, you can afford to make some mistakes and still be understood, although you should avoid mixing up homophones. If you mistake were for we’re, which for witch, here for hear, are for our, buy for by, to for too for two, and hoard for horde, then you will be branded as stupid by those who are much more stupid that you are. You needn’t worry about garnering the respect of people who make judgements on the basis of such simple errors, but in case they are in positions of power over you—as your professors, prospective bosses, president, and landlords—it is worth realizing that even if their focus on the errors says more about them than you, you will have a difficult time shaking their judgement and it might have a devastatingly out-of-proportion effect on your life.

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Tolerance, Ethics and Conjoined Twins

On CBC radio’s The Current this morning, Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed a doctor who was responsible for the multiple surgeries that separated conjoined twins at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. 00000The story was mostly concerned with the ethical implications of the surgery, as well as some details about the family involved. The parents had twin girls who were born joined at the pelvis and abdomen and had elected for surgery to avert the nearly inevitable circumstance in which one of the girls—the weaker one who was subject to illness—died while still attached. The subsequent load of toxins would soon overwhelm the other sister and kill her.

Although the surgery might prove to be fatal to both girls, and quite likely would kill the weaker one, the family—in consultation with a medical team, ethicists at the hospital, and their clergy—decided to go ahead with the procedure. They accepted the risks of the procedure since they might lose both girls if they remained conjoined. The surgery proved to be fatal to the weaker twin, since she could not live without the other. Scans before surgery showed that her weak heart was heavily dependent on a massive artery that went from her healthier twin to her heart. Once that artery was cut, she succumbed with ten minutes.

The background of the story was interesting enough, and I was as drawn to the medical information surrounding the procedure as anyone, but one relatively minor aspect of the story drew my attention in particular. The family came from a rural village where their superstitious neighbours were considerably worked up about the birth of the twins. The girls were not seen as unfortunate victims a genetic accident, but rather as a harbinger of evil. In their Christian village the 00000family was shunned, and the girls—on the rare occasions that the parents took the babies outside—had rocks thrown at them. The family feared for their lives, the safety of their children, and both their social and professional lives were considerably disrupted by their neighbours’ reaction.

I understand this part of the story well enough. In a world of ignorance, their likely uneducated and superstitious neighbours readily found a mythological explanation for the occurrence. Although they might have taken another route to their differential treatment, like the conjoined children born in India who are viewed as lucky, their profound intellectual privation no doubt fueled their extreme prejudice. Their reaction might be seen to be understandable on this level, for if they believe in the ineffable then the magic of the twin’s birth might well affect them, much as a cat puking up a hairball can predict a surge in the international stock market. Once reasoning is thrown aside, then anything becomes possible.

The part that becomes harder to understand is their neighbours’ subsequent application of mythology to the family’s attempt to ameliorate the girls’ situation. The family sought a medical alternative to the daughters’ care, and that also proved to be a problem for their superstitious fellow villagers. Their “reasoning,” if I may use the word so loosely, was that god had created the children in that form and it was up for the parents to accept god’s superior judgement. The villagers’ reasons for throwing rocks at the children becomes difficult to understand once they have made that claim, however. Were they intentionally stoning god’s work, and either forgetting that aspect of their own reasoning or enacting parts of the bible that encourage rock throwing as a punishment for a host of crimes, working on Sunday, adultery, and wearing mixed fabric.

If we accept the premise—that god created the children, or allowed them to be born conjoined—then it follows that their birth state would have his explicit consent. Presumably he would have some grand reason to cause such misery. Perhaps god was testing the family’s resolve, 00000and they are merely a modern version of Job who was tormented so god could prove to satan that Job’s love was real.

The part that becomes difficult to comprehend is how their reasoning follows from that initial flawed and unsubstantiated premise. Even if they presume that god did such a thing to the unfortunate children, it does not follow that the neighbours would be able to predict god’s reasoning. Perhaps their god knew the family was too sedentary, and this was the only way he could imagine getting them to move away from their home village of superstitious fools. If his project was forcing change upon a resistant family then he might well have tinkered cruelly with the girls and thus lead them on a path toward what he wanted.

The villagers not only presume god is behind the children’s medical condition, but that they know better what god might intend than the god to whom they ascribe the action. If god is responsible for the accident of birth, then why are they throwing rocks? Do the villagers believe that their god had the children born so that they would have someone to lob rocks at? If god is responsible for the children’s situation, why do the villagers despise a family who has furnished such palpable proof of god’s existence and malicious involvement in the lives of his most helpless subjects?

Once they have thrown their rocks—and they still believe the children’s circumstance is due to god’s interference and therefore should not be medically tinkered with—how do they know god’s intentions so well that they know the doctors should stay away? Do they avoid all doctors, since the same reasoning would apply to anyone? Does anyone in the village 0000wear spectacles without fear of a stoning, since they are circumventing god’s divine plan for their partial blindness?

The story declined to report on the family’s home country, let alone village, in order to protect the remaining relatives in the village. If the neighbours get wind of the children’s surgery, and that god’s divine plan of irate and violent villagers has somehow been evaded, then the family fears the neighbours may attack their relatives. They have no faith that god can take care of his own vengeance, even given a bible that offers a plenitude of proof the contrary, but they feel that they need to supplement his possibly delayed judgement day with a divine village lynching.

The true gods in the village are the neighbours, for they have determined the accident of birth is divine, they have ascribed a punishment they think suitable, they have set the limits on what can be done to improve the children’s life, and they have decided to punish any who do not follow their commandments.  Certainly they are the worthy inheritors of the cruel god of the Old and New Testament, for they invent reasoning on the spot, assign punishments as cruel as the initial deformity, and then demand that the girls stay in the fallen state so that they have someone to torment.

One of the reasons that modern humans have rejected such superstitious claims as those of religions is situations like these. Since the villagers have chosen to act as they will and merely use any god they can get their hands on as an excuse, there is no reasoning with them. The family had no choice but to escape, and even if they miss their homicidal and intolerant neighbours, they cannot go back for fear of their lives. They will still consult with their clergy, who are largely responsible for this type of intolerance, but in other ways the human species will continue to drag the decaying retinue of the mindless village into the future. Although their beliefs are harmless enough when they don’t deicide to inflict them on others, they are easily turned from a plowshare to a sword.

Once reasoning has been set aside, once we have decided that evidence is not important when judging the world around us, then we open ourselves to the ravening beast of such cultural artifacts. If the villagers were amendable to reason, then the family could have asked them to consider that they are attacking—according to their own beliefs—god’s children. If revulsion still overcame their emotive control and they still wanted to throw rocks, they might have been reminded that the same type of medical interventions they take advantage of might work with the children. If their eyeglasses proved to be within the line of god’s treatments when major surgery was not, then they might have been asked what the hapless family might be expected to do.

The empathy we would like to expect from our fellow humans should make up the shortfall of their reasoning, but once poisonous ideas help to shore up visceral antipathy, and reasoning has been subsumed under mythology and madness, we are left no recourse but to leave. Many people around the world no doubt applaud the family and feel for their twin’s circumstance, and mercifully those who are all too eager to cast stones are largely confined to small communities and we may hope in the future their mental weaknesses disappear entirely.

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Living in the City: Boxes

Although he would at times forget the scampering and rustling that marked people amongst the monoliths, like the worms in a graveyard or rats in a sinking ship, at moments he would look up to see the lit windows of a thousand tiny00000 lives, made small by the distance down the boulevard, and smaller still in apartments which didn’t allow them to expand into anything more than an infestation. It was then that he recognized that although the buildings bore the parasites with the stoicism that comes with the knowledge of extermination, the people lived their moment on sufferance and it would take more than the cost of their rent to give them back the open skies and unfenced vacant lots.

Compartmentalized from the moment they slipped from the womb, they fell from one rigid box to another, their uneasy path littered with the castoff shells of past occupancy, of the jerk and fall that was being tipped out of the soft womb. From that soothing roundness, they fell into the barred walls of the cradle, 00000and occasionally a hang reached from the sky and tilted it alarmingly back and forth. The cradle led to a small room housing a bed and other boxes, and they were meant to stay there for a half dozen years or so until they graduated to school. Education, they had to learn quickly, was a system for boxing, a long conveyer belt that led the00000 still-soft mind to desk to room to larger room and back again. Viewed from the outside, a privilege the child was afforded briefly as they stepped from the bus, the school was built from a giant’s play, the unsteady blocks leaning on one another until a hand reached down to sweep them to the floor.

After school they found a job somewhere amongst the huge warehouses and skyscrapers that dwarfed them and their concerns. Along another conveyor00000 they would build boxes with their roughening hands until the hollering boss would lean out over the fence that protected him from his worker and pull the cord which announced they could eat or, later in the day, go home. By this time they would have found one of the tiny apartments and if their evenings were not too tired, or when the weekend mornings found them fresh enough, they would work on conceiving another baby for the boxes.

When Tom imagined an entire system built to serve square walls and the tiny insects that lived in the cracks 00000and amongst the insulation of buildings that endured their presence, he always saw himself as though from above, or a long distance, a miniscule crooked figure angled away from the street and pacing the confines of a tiny room. He thought about how he’d been brought up in the open air, and had come like a million others, drawn to the city like a moth to a candle on a windowsill, his eyes wide with the wonder of humans living in droves, great open-mouthed hordes rushing to and fro with the commuter traffic day, and collapsing in exhaustion at night.

He acknowledged that the buildings were not alien constructions, that they had been designed and erected by those who thought about making money from their00000 fellow humans, but that took away none of the horror of living in the midst of the roiling crowds, and the feeling of scurrying on the bottom of a pit. There were those who cried foul and left, to end their days rubbing their limbs against the rough bark of the forest trees and grubbing in the dirt for food, but many more treasured a fantasy of themselves above the common run, that far above the anthill they would one day be able to look down, their fellow hurrying back and forth far below, and they would be able to parade their success and escape before others who thought to dream their way out of the shared nightmare.

Those people became flint-eyed in their quest of the higher box, and they hammered nails into their feet so they might easier climb the backs of their fellow sufferers. They earned their place in the sky, their view from far above the toiling multitudes, but they gained it by way of malice and betrayal, it came at the expense of their better selves, and even when they were as high as they could get, the penthouses on the tallest buildings, their eyes only looked down. They had pinned so many hopes on bettering themselves at the expense of others that they had forgotten about the sky.

Even the lowest worker in the subbasement terror of their daily existence had the occasional beam of sunlight bounce off a glass-sheathed building and into their face. On their weekends they might play accordion along the high wall in which people had confined the river, and for a moment be more than an ant waiting for a magnifying glass. 0000The penthousers had no such release. Even once they pried their bloody shoes from their feet, their necks were so twisted from their climb that they could no longer look up, and they only found pleasure, their fingers scrabbling on the paper in front of them, in the numbers which traced their success against the losses of the many who had failed.

A vast machine for the grinding of human hamburger, the cities could kill a dream more easily than a man steps on a cockroach, but Tom assured himself that he 00000knew the story and could therefore evade its most likely outcomes. Somehow there was a middle ground, a vacant lot where kids pried away the fence and kicked a ball above the dust, and he was more determined to find it now that he was old enough to realize it existed. The many cracks and mouse holes meant there were others who had survived a different way, and he was determined to find out their stories, although in the meantime he would be scrabbling in the streets like the rest of them.

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Preface to my Novel about Colonizing Mars

I first thought about the lone colonist of Mars by the chance association between two very different and, some would say, antithetical ideas. I designed a university course on the changing perception of Mars in literature over the past two centuries at nearly the same time as active projects to take people to Mars were finding their footing. As well, I realized when I was looking through the information on the planet online, that some deluded people thought the planet was already inhabited, although they could not explain their reasoning at all cogently.

In preparation for the course, I read 00000about Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, which seeks to place humans on the surface of the planet within a few years, and the more recent Mars One team’s scheme to televise the adventures of the colonists they claim will be in place in 2025. I was especially interested in the Mars One’s idea of one-way colonization. This makes much more scientific sense than Mars Society’s bypass venture whose only purpose is to grab some rocks and return, although it is also much more challenging in terms of engineering and human resourcefulness. While looking through the photos from the Mars rovers, I began to understand that 00000while I was excited about recent scientific advances, there were others online who were both distrustful of authority and extremely gullible.

One of the most profound examples of this paranoid naiveté are the people who pore over the latest NASA rover images looking for evidence of life. NASA is accustomed to people like the flat-Earthers claiming that their photographic evidence is manufactured and that their findings about the burgeoning carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere are 00000false. But more recently, as they post their pictures, there are people who expand the view in order to find what NASA has missed. Some of these people are determined to both prove NASA wrong and to be the first people to discover life on Mars. Accordingly, they scour the pictures of the surface looking for geological anomalies, familiar shapes, and more significantly, living beings.

These armchair investigators’   000003  use of pictures leads them to cite hard-to-interpret bulges in the landscape or angular rocks which resemble familiar shapes as evidence. When they are asked for something more substantial, they immediately reply with conjecture, cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, and 000010pixelated photos. They argue for the significance of dozens of photographic anomalies, arguably the most famous of which is probably the hill on Mars which they claimed resembled a human face.

My reader may remember the Face on Mars controversy that so bruised the public attention that even NASA felt compelled—to counter claims of a cover-up—to00000 change the orbit of one of their craft for a second look. Their audience showed so much more interest in the face than they ever had NASA’s legitimate science, that when public statements advised it was merely an artifact of the light and play of shadow, the gullible public accused NASA of hiding the truth. For the armchair investigators on Earth, this was proof positive that Mars is or had been inhabited, although they offered little explanation for the family resemblance between Martians and humans.

Another famous image that has diverted attention from real science is that of a curiously-shaped rock outcropping that looks like a human figure. 000020For the “investigators,” it can be taken to be evidence of “a woman waiting for a bus on Mars.” Although some people come to laugh on the Reddit pages where such debates find a fertile ground of poor education coupled with profound ignorance, there are so many who take the picture seriously that the joke falls flat.

I was entranced by the bland naiveté of the comments below articles where good-intentioned people would undermine such conjecture by reference to the woman’s relative size. They pointed to other photos from different angles—for a similar analysis was the undoing of the Face on Mars. One person with more of a science background vainly tried to explain that the woman could not exist because Mars possesses one percent of Earth’s air pressure. They were attacked by others who claimed the people could be using suits, like scuba gear, and still others sailed further offshore with their argument that their god could have given them an atmosphere or had them live without it. In the face of such blind assurance, scientific verifiability is as helpless as a fish on the shore, but there are lungfish. Like those tidal creatures, I began to wonder if I might be able to get some use out of conspiracy crowd’s profound ignorance.

Once I realized that these people who were arguing back and forth about the possibilities on the basis of such slim evidence were not merely trolling, I decided to place a colonist on Mars. In the absence of living beings on Mars, and in an internet environment which included so much blind faith, I decided to pretend that my colonist was sending regular reports from the surface. I used the latest pictures from the00000 Opportunity and Spirit rovers, as well as what is known about the planet, and invented the difficulties that surrounded his attempt to survive such a harsh environment. He was never meant to be a spokesperson for Earthly environmental concerns, or to make pithy statements about managing the resources on a planet that the readers might take to heart. He was merely verbal flypaper, using thin watery honey to attract the flies who are drawn to nonsense.

I set him up on BlogSpot, gave him a name, and watched as he dutifully wrote his daily, and by times weekly, blog entry from the red planet. Unfortunately, for my experiment, few were drawn to my bald-faced tomfoolery, and no one stepped forward to claim that NASA was lying about a colonist while a simple google search proved his existence. I collected a few serious followers who were perhaps excited by the creative project, such as a NASA scientist who specialized in ionization in the upper atmosphere, but in those early days of Mars online, my struggling colonist attracted little attention.

Perhaps because I was spending so much time making sure my colonist was encountering a real Martian environment and designing a course about how Mars has been written, I began to think more about the red planet. Within a year I was working on a novel about fifteen colonists and before long I turned back to the original inspiration and found my lone00000 colonist’s story compelling in its own right. Perhaps because I was intent on making it appear both evocative and scientifically accurate, I had to imagine the life of a person millions of kilometres from Earth who was living with the knowledge that their food was running out and that rescue was not a possibility.

The ignorance of humanity, combined with our willingness to seek out knowledge, continues to be an inspiration to me. Although the first colonist on Mars is still to come—at least outside the pages of this book—it is a testament to the various space agencies around the world that we know as much as we do about Mars, and it is a testament to our own intransigence that we know so little.

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Yard Sale Culture

Sometimes he felt as though he’d wandered into a world where everyone’s life had been spilled out like a gut-shot man, as if their sentiment and possessions were stacked in boxes at a planet-wide yard sale. He thought of what his life would resemble, all the liquor bottles having not quite made it to the recycle bin taunting him from a college sophomore’s top shelf. 000003There would be wedding rings and pawnshop promises scattered to the horizon and the only thing that would save him from crippling humiliation would be the millions of other displays that were the tragic comic lives of everyone else.

It was yardsale day off the main road, and he’d wandered into it by mistake, his shoes scuffed by the uneven sidewalk and unfriendly curbs. The time periods were easy enough to tell by the owner’s crushed faces, even if the metal toys and spray on window-frost were not a giveaway. He pretended an interest he didn’t feel, thinking only about escaping, as if the highway lay on the other side of a million compartmentalized lives. He avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes, 000020letting his fingers drift over vinyl albums from the fifties, yellow piles of National Geographic and rumpled piles of children’s clothes.

If he were to buy, he knew he would have to buy the lot, and then, staggering, he would go back to his car carrying the most meaningful part of their life. He would bring the hasty decisions and regrets, the petty triumphs and Walmart-greeter lives back to his own apartment and there they would fester until they invaded his own life. He would find his hobbies taken over by half-finished needlepoint and he would have to buy cigars to feed the cigar cutter he had no real use for.

He gave up on the debris from their broken lives and began to watch the people who would have nothing to do with their sales. They were a mixed group. 000003Children with tear-streaked faces watched their favoirite toys bought for pocket change, dolls they had embraced through nights too terrible to recall grasped by the greedy hand of their parent’s avarice and then thrown into the gaping maw of the cement truck appreciation of a child as unlike them as a winter day is like a dandelion. There were mothers who watched people paw over the shirt their baby had been wearing when he first walked, heard them bargain with the husband from where she stood on the step, taking that precious memory for twenty cents and almost dropping it as they gathered their armful of what might as well be stolen goods. Some fathers saw tools that they had never used but had been worn by their father’s hands disappear into plastic bags and the thanks that accompanied the crumpled bills suddenly corrupted their past with cheap tinsel and twisted fir of a Christmas tree kept long past the point it had browned into dry rot.

He needed to retrace his steps. Behind him, somewhere beyond the trinkets and toys, the ties and piles of granny squares that would have been an afghan if 000003grandma had lived long enough, somewhere behind plastic furniture and chipboard discount lives, his car waited, its engine impatient for the road. He threaded his feet, placing them sideways amongst the boxes and spilled contents of tables in order to avoid stepping on the goods he might suddenly owe someone a quarter for, but the piles were oddly similar. He’d seen purpled hands grasping bulging bags, as their new owners—little knowing that their new goods were more dangerous than poison or weaponized fertilizer—carried them to their own homes. Hundreds of pounds of clothing and differently shaped plastic junk had been swallowed but he now realized the supply was endless.

The tables still creaked under the burden of twenty, forty, sixty years of living, and boxes were still overflowing with free or bargain marked down and cheap books and magazines and screwdrivers and old coffee mugs with slogans on the side. He suddenly realized that beneath each normal-looking home was a vast pit into which they had been throwing off-the-rack trash for generations. The bottomless pile that represented the human wish to cover their despair and fear with junk would mean the yard sale could last for years. Some children would be conceived in old copies of Playboy and months later born amongst the maternity wear. They would grow up on top of boxes of toys and play cryptic games under tablecloths while 000003others shopped. If their parents’ determination to clear out their cornucopia of a house continued, the kids might range wider into other yard sales, swapping out goods so that the great swirl of garbage that was the suburban crescents and bays could feed itself, chewing up its own children in order to greed-satisfy their parents. They would grow older amongst the teen novels and pellet guns, pawing over the clothes that were old styles come new again, until they were ready to take up professions. Then they would be into the books, a DIY series competing with physics and chemistry textbooks and literary works in perfect condition. They would eventually take their own part in the parade that was humanity pushing more and more garbage into its own mouth. Some of them would never leave the permanent yard sale that was their neighbourhood, and instead would suckle their children on the endless consumer cycle.

Once the full horror of what he’d stumbled into came to him, Tom almost ran back to his car, ignoring the supplicating arms that held out a shirt and a tie, a monkey wrench and plaster Elvis. He pushed past hands like they were branches in an animate and malign forest, and stomped plastic containers and spilled record compilations as he ran. Once he was in the car, he drove above the city for the first time in a month, and there, high in the hills, he looked down through the brown smear that 000003belted the horizon with smog, and thought about the whirlpool he had barely escaped. Beyond the city was the Pacific, and in its centre swirled the great Pacific garbage patch. He’d never seen it, but he felt he knew more about it now that he’d noticed the permanent yard sale that was the lives of his neighbours. Like the patch, they circulated the trash until it broke down into its component parts, and then they drank the viscous slurry like energy drinks, ingesting enough plastic to get them through another day.

It was dark when he drove below the smog line back into the city. The piles of clothing would still be on tables and the late night obsessed would be running fingers through rayon and pinching vinyl, but amongst the 000003clutter tired children would rest, their sticky hands still clutching toys and their mouths automatically chewing on the corner of a curtain or the remains of a pleather purse. He turned away from the sight, although he knew he would be haunted by porcelain dogs and glass figurines whenever he visited a friend’s home.

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What Hump?

In a short but provocative exchange between Doctor Frankenstein and Igor in Mel Brooks’ 1974 parody Young Frankenstein, Igor makes a profound statement about our lack of self knowledge. The doctor asks him if he wishes to consider a surgical alternative to the hump on his back, but Igor, with a gleam in his eye that acknowledges that the doctor will not continue the questioning, asks what hump?

00000Every time I have thought about this scene, with Igor’s oblivious obstinacy, his utter unwillingness to admit the truth about his physical deformity, I was always reminded of that aspect of the human condition which makes us unable, or unwilling to admit our foibles and concerns.

Although we point to our ability to recognize ourselves in the mirror with great glee, as if that accomplishment incontrovertibly sets us apart from the other animals, we are most exercised when we try to probe our own motivations and concerns. We often claim that we understand what we want, can explain what we do, and are not mystified when we stymie our own aims, but in fact stepping aside from the only perspective our life offers us is more difficult than we pretend.

One of the most pernicious aspects of mental illness, for example, is the inability to recognize it, even if the person who suffers from mental illness can acknowledge their plight. My friend told me about her friend who refused medication because “it messed with his mind.” She expressed her dismay by telling me, “He needs his mind messed with.” Even if the person with mental illness can admit their situation, they somehow avoid using that most salient information to evaluate their own behaviour and ideation.

There are a few techniques we can use 00000to force us to acknowledge another point of view. When we were young someone probably told us that we needed to walk in another’s shoes, and that advice holds even though we are theoretically more mature when we are older.

We should evaluate all of our behaviour from this outside perspective. As we examine each of our choices and statements as if another were to do the same, we can get that sense of dislocation that we need to aim for. If you have ever watched a beloved movie with a friend who didn’t care for it, you have already had an inkling of the power of perspective. Because humans are social animals we automatically place ourselves in the subject position of our peers, 00000even if that position conflicts with our opinion or values. When our friend tells us the narrative choices in our favourite film are weak, we can either argue with them and thus learn nothing from this valuable moment, or we can look with fresh eyes at what has been hidden by our enjoyment. If the film is worthy of our accolades then it can endure some criticism. If our enjoyment is based in fond unshared memories, or other emotional tags, then we can learn to evaluate our own likes more clearly.

In our life, we need to learn to evoke this same dislocating critical eye. We can do that by imagining another were making the same statements, or imagine that our audience were another person whose opinion we possibly value more. If the statement is true, then we should be able to make it before our best friend, our parents, and our lover. If the action we 00000have just preformed, such as a petty crime can be explained in a way that salves our conscience, then how well does it fare against the evaluative process of the court.

I have a friend who evades all of this responsibility for his actions by trying to ensure that no one knows anything about him. He has a deep-seated social anxiety, he tells me, and therefore worries that no one will like him if they knew his real self that he keeps hidden. His answer to this is not to make sure both his public self and hidden self are 00000worthy of approbation, but rather he merely keeps his depredations secret. He has no fear of engaging in quite reprehensible actions, as long as no one finds out. His fear that people will not like him once they get to know the real him, is quite valid. He engages in quite unsettling behaviour morally, and yet that does not trouble him in the least since no one is privy to his actions.

When he is found out, he suffers all of the agony of the socially fearful, but when I look at his situation I merely ask why he doesn’t change his behaviour. We all have secrets that we’d rather people not know, shabby furtive things we have done or thought, but social anxiety is unimaginably worse when your secrets point out that you make little effort to act in a moral fashion.

When a friend’s child was in the bathroom next to the kitchen when they were discussing his lack of attention to his schoolwork he was listening attentively. One phrase they used excited him enough to burst from the bathroom with demands and expostulations. One parent said to another, “Maybe it’s time we got Ritalin.” If you have never heard the name of the drug, and you were a child listening through a bathroom door, you might hear something quite different. The child heard, “Maybe it’s time we got rid-of-him.”

When I heard this story my first reaction was to laugh with the parents as they described how they placated his fears, but upon reflection I realized an odd aspect of the child’s behaviour. He burst from the bathroom demanding that they don’t get rid of him. For me, that defined a way of thinking. He did not quietly listen for more information that he might use to ensure they kept him. He didn’t reconsider how lazy he had been with his schoolwork or even ask what they meant. Instead, he was sure of what he had heard and he leapt straight to demands. He never considered that his behaviour was the 00000problem they were discussing and therefore needed to be modified. He was fine, in his own mind. Instead he wanted to modify their behaviour. “What hump?” he came out yelling.

Another friend was treating me to a four day diatribe about her ex-boyfriends, complete will all of the shades of meaning that she attached to each of their interactions, when I began to notice a pattern. In every story, she would mention 00000how angry she was, or how mad that made her. We were walking when I made this observation, and perhaps I hoped that she would therefore rethink her interactions with others. Instead, she merely replied flippantly, “Didn’t you know I have anger issues?”

The gay tone of her voice belied her statement, although I had ample evidence to indicate that her anger issues were rampant, but I wondered why—if she understood that to be a flaw in herself—she did not apply that to her own life. Shouldn’t those anger issues inform her interactions with her boyfriends and help to explain why simple conversations might go awry? Instead, she was both blind to her own hump and was able to use it as a ready excuse, all the while keeping her anger intact and justified.

If we have a hump it behooves us to recognize it. We do not need to belabour it in public, we need not parade it before others, but we should recognize that having a hump will affect our ability to buy a fitted suit off the rack. And even in approaching a tailor, we might want to realize that it is our hump that drives us to the professionals. That is not the tailor’s fault, or that of anyone else.

Another technique we can employ is to examine our motivations in the same way we would another. The reactions of our peers are a clue. If they are taken aback by something we have said, we should re-examine why we are saying it. Are we angry when making the statement, or influenced by alcohol, drugs, hunger, or exhaustion? Like a baby who has not had enough sleep, we can get cranky without knowing what it means or whose fault it is. My good friend was quite annoyed recently and at one point she said, “Why are you being so irritating today?” I suspected that the answer—that she was tired and had a bad day—would have little currency until she was more rested, but I was surprised that it didn’t occur to her.

It is not easy to carry a hump, but at least if our issues are in the open we can point to them as we strive to go beyond their limitations. When Igor asks the question, Doctor Frankenstein merely looks to one side and then abruptly changes the topic. Likewise, with our secret hump, we are left with pretending it does not exist, lying about its effect, or going through our life oblivious and unconcerned, while around us others bend and sway and modify themselves so as not to discommode a hump we refuse to specify.

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The Flat Earth Experience

In his The Time Machine Weena tries to throw herself in the fire because she has never seen flames before. 00000She doesn’t know that it will burn her and that she should exercise care. She is a figure of profound ignorance in the novel, but she is the one I turn to when I try to understand the mind of the person who believes in the conspiracy theory that people around the world—from Eratosthenes onward—are lying about it being a sphere.

In order to focus our examination we will have to set aside those who did not so much make up their mind but had it make up for them by their religion. 00000The antecedents of their particular disorder are easy to trace and they would have to upset the entire applecart of their world view if they are to go against their belief system. Their defensiveness makes a kind of sense, in a rather depressing psychological fashion.

The Flat Earthers I am concerned about are more those who have decided—based presumably on the certainty of their limited senses and the paranoid concern that the world is filled with those who lie easily and well—that the world is not a globe but rather a flat dish with a sun shining 00000on it from above like a spotlight. This is the mentality that I want to get inside. Or perhaps I should say, peer beneath.

The original flat earth societies were more about proving the bible true and scientific verities false, but there was one lone voice which approached the question differently. The Flat Earth Society of Canada which was established on November 8, 1970 by philosopher Leo Ferrari, writer Raymond Fraser, and poet Alden Nowlan was an intellectual exercise. They were more interested in encouraging people to rely on the evidence of their senses instead of the received wisdom of education, and in that way they ran directly counter to the modern flat earth societies who have returned to the older and semi-successful project of undermining reasoning.00000

Non-religious belief in a flat earth is difficult to follow, although we can understand it emotionally. Their educational background is presumably limited, so they find many of the proofs of the spherical earth hopelessly obscure. They might think about the position of the stars depending on where you are on the surface of the globe, especially Polaris, as a form of evidence that the earth is a sphere, although that would engage their possibly atrophied spatial thinking. Foucault’s Pendulum demands the knowledge of how a pendulum might work on a rotating earth, and thus would strain their already well exercised incredulity. The disappearance of a ship going below the horizon is a much more straightforward test, although it is dependent on 00000understanding it is the effect of the earth’s curvature, instead of merely believing that every ship sinks once it leaves port.

They might try Eratosthenes’ experiment which took two vertical lines in different cities, drawn using a plumb, upright by the force of gravity, and looked to the shadow they cast. If the earth were flat the sun at noon would be directly overhead00000 for both, and because it is not, that is proof positive that the earth is a sphere. They might view the curve of the horizon out an airplane window, wonder as to why the other planets are round, the existence and meaning of time zones, why our gravity is consistent from one place on the globe to another. In short, they have a dozen different ways they might be able to supplement their educational deficit.

I am less concerned with their reluctance to engage in rather simple tests of their beliefs; I am more than accustomed to the very human refusal to admit a logical basis to an idea they hold to be true. I am much more interested in what the world looks like to these people. What do they think when they see the nearly ubiquitous images of the spherical earth?

I wrote a hard science fiction novel called Flat Earth and although I didn’t think much about flat earther’s at the time, and the book is not about the conspiracy ideas, I am occasionally surprised by people stumbling onto my website where I describe the book. I am quite explicit in its description, for I do not want anyone to feel duped or put upon, but I wonder at those who think they are going to find a book-length proof of their firmly held beliefs only to be disappointed yet again.

Instead, and this is the viewpoint I wonder about, the flat earther is surrounded by images in which the earth is a sphere. They are inundated by maps and globes in their school classroom, 00000Google Earth on their computer, artist conceptions of the solar system, the frequent tweets from the international space station, and Sagan’s pale blue dot. In fact, there are so many images that run counter to their chosen reactionary view that I wonder that they manage to cling to it so tenaciously. To do so points to more than ordinary recalcitrance. For every one image on a spoof site declaiming the medieval peasant’s view of the flat earth, there are millions of photographs of the actual earth proving it is a sphere. For every planetarium and orrery there are none which purport to show how an unusually shaped flat earth might fit amongst the planets.

For the flat earther the world must seem to be under a vast delusion, and they alone—and a few of their compatriots online—possess the truth. They must feel hemmed in on every side, that millions had been spent on educational models, doctoring 00000photos, faking nineteenth century explorer’s privations, merely to confuse the gullible. They never mention what the many millions of people who engage in the conspiracy earn from their quite difficult ruse, and I can only imagine that the flat earther compares the complicated plot involving world governments and many thousands of scientists to the schadenfreude sought by online trolls. The flat earther must feel that fun is being had at their expense and they are not invited to the party.

Such a person would feel profoundly isolated before the advent of the internet. But now they may find others who suffer from the same dislocation of idea, the same paranoid delusions, and therefore their sense of self receives a small underserved boost. Now they can point to several people world wide who share their view, and for them that vastly outweighs the cornucopia of evidence to the contrary, just like an unfounded claim on a 00000website about optical illusions forcing ships below the horizon outweighs a real test that they could easily perform. They accept at face value the statement made by a website they could have designed better themselves, but put off the trip to the beach with the telescope to see if the claim is true.

Their main feature is a kind of stubbornness, similar to the religious believer. They think that what is thrown up by their fallible brain must be true regardless of the physical world, and disregarding evidence to the contrary. In that, they are not alone, but I think their example performs a valuable service. Like the eastern Canadian example of a flat earth society argued, we should run our own experiments instead of merely accepting what we are told. Unfortunately, humans are a herd animal steve-cutts-Are-You-Lost-In-The-World-Like-Merather than the independent thinkers that we need to be. Einstein didn’t come up with relativity to explain the world because he was under the misapprehension that Newton’s laws were wrong. He sought to answer a different question that the flat earther’s gods and websites would not have been able to address. Other scientists were rapidly trying to substantiate Einstein’s theory, and it has been found quite robust when explaining the forces of time and gravity in a flexible space. Overturning it could very will win a Nobel prize, although spoofing it by a silly website would gain nothing more than a just obscurity.

Any view, regardless of how fantastic, has followers, but before we don our Harry Potter glasses—because the book is true you know—let’s grab the kids and take them to the beach where we can watch boats slowly sink below the horizon. Then we can go home with paper and pen, or a 00000basketball, an orange, and a flashlight, and try to think of how that might happen. The kids will be the better for the experience, and rather accept information at face value and then not bother to test it, like the flat earthers, they will know enough to think through problems on their own.

Weena cannot be blamed for her attraction to the fire, but in these days of freely available matches and stoves, we need to think and test before we are covered in third degree intellectual burns.

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